The White Girl by Vera Caspary, Forgotten Contemporary of Nella Larsen’s Passing
By Francis Booth | On October 16, 2021 | Updated August 31, 2022 | Comments (0)
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929) has staked an important place as a classic fictional work of race, class, sexuality, and identity. Thematically similar, and published the same year, The White Girl by Vera Caspary, a white Jewish novelist and screenwriter, was published earlier that same year and is all but forgotten.
This analysis of how this now-obscure novel relates to Nella Larsen’s enduring classic is excerpted from the forthcoming A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Novels of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth:
In a career spanning 1929 to 1979, prolific novelist and screenwriter Vera Caspary wrote a series of compelling strong and amoral women. Her two most famous titular anti-heroines – Laura and Bedelia – were turned into successful Hollywood films of the noir genre in the 1940s.
Enthusiastic reception for The White Girl
The heroine of Caspary’s first, semi-autobiographical novel is neither strong nor amoral. The White Girl came out in January 1929 to very enthusiastic reviews and had run into a sixth edition by March of the same year, the month in which Nella Larsen published Passing to much more tepid reviews and poor sales.
As Caspary says in her autobiography (The Secrets of Grown-Ups), “there was a rumor that I was a Black girl who had written an autobiography.” She wasn’t. Despite the many strongly autobiographical elements in The White Girl, its heroine Solaria Cox is not Jewish like her author but is transposed to a light-skinned young Black woman, her “camellia-toned skin” pale enough to allow her to pass as white, which she does, as did many young Black women in Chicago and New York, the settings for both The White Girl and Passing.
In Larsen’s novel, Clare, whose father is a janitor like Solaria’s, passes as white so successfully that her white husband never suspects she is Black until later on when she reunites with an old friend who is involved in the (fictional) Negro Welfare League.
When he finds out, the husband accuses Clare of being a “damned dirty n–!” Clare falls out of the window and dies, though it is not clear whether she was pushed or if she has killed herself rather than carry on with her life after her true racial heritage has been revealed.
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Learn more about Vera Caspary
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Caspary’s Solaria and Larsen’s Clare
In The White Girl, Solaria has a Black family, and is striking and attractive to men of all races; like Clare, she “passes” successfully.
“She was a tall girl with a languorous fine figure, small hips, exquisite breasts and a narrow head carried high on a sensitive neck. Her wide-set dark eyes were dusky mirrors, mysterious, hardly alive. Her nose was straight and arrogant, set bravely above a short upper lip. With her fine black hair and white face, she looked as if she might be a Spanish aristocrat.”
In Larsen’s Passing, Clare’s friend Irene has a similar Hispanic look. ‘They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.”
Like Clare, their mutual friend Gertrude has married a white man. Irene reflects, “’Though it couldn’t be truthfully said that she was ‘passing.’ Her husband—what was his name? — had been in school with her and had been quite well aware, as had his family and most of his friends, that she was a Negro. It hadn’t, Irene knew, seemed to matter to him then. Did it now, she wondered.”
Irene does not herself consciously try to “pass” but she is curious about Clare and ‘this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.’ When Clare asks Irene if she herself never thought of passing, Irene answers quickly “No. Why should I?”
For her own part, Irene finds that her annoyance at women who try to pass “arose from a feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in the great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well.” Irene feels that she is betraying her race by helping Clare hide her origin from her husband but is also reluctant to betray her friend in support of her race:
“… she shrank away from the idea of telling that man, Clare Kendry’s white husband, anything that would lead him to suspect that his wife was a Negro. Nor could she write it, or telephone it, or tell it to someone else who would tell him. She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three.”
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Nella Larsen’s Passing is now widely read and studied;
while Caspary’s The White Girl has fallen into obscurity
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“The hazardous business” of passing
Vera Caspary’s ironically-titled The White Girl is also about the “hazardous business” of passing, and though it was published three months earlier than Larsen’s Passing and written several years earlier than that, it could be read as a long form of answer to Irene’s questions.
Of course, unlike Larsen (who was mixed race), Caspary wasn’t Black at all, but felt she had at least some credentials. The milieu in which The White Girl was written came at a time when Caspary was assistant editor of Dance Lovers magazine in New York, socializing outside work with a circle of Black male dancers, who unreservedly welcomed her into their bosom with no hint of prejudice. (In Passing, Irene says, “you’ve got to admit that the average colored man is a better dancer than the average white man.”) In her autobiography, Caspary says:
“In the face of their warm and generous friendship I was self-conscious with these new friends. In the beginning I found it harder to carry on a conversation with them than with foreigners who knew only a few English words. In high school I had never spoken to black kids and now I felt that my new friends could look through my pale flesh and see guilt.
A word that hinted of flesh tints set me so on edge that I’d change the subject at once. They spoke easily of blacks and white people. One evening I sat with Pierce and a couple of his friends, telling jokes and speaking of many things, and suddenly he said, ‘Why, Miss Caspary, I forgot that you were white.’”
Despite, or perhaps because of deep-seated Jewish guilt, largely drawn from her mother, Caspary envisages a novel based on a girl she had known at school and whom she recalls many years later.
“One day I had read in a newspaper an item about a black girl passing as white. The idea touched a vulnerable spot: guilt, unconscious until then, suddenly become an irritation. In my class at high school there had been a girl so lovely that I could never forget her, a quiet beauty with flesh as white and opaque as a camellia, flawless features and eyes like sparkling jet. I had admired but never talked to her, never walked with her along the school corridor.
Why? Why the aloofness, the pretense of blindness, the deaf ear to black classmates? . . . Why was I still self-conscious with such good friends as Billy Pierce and Buddy Bradley? Even more perplexing the question of how she felt about us, the whites who shunned her just as she shunned the blacks in the school. So she became the heroine of my story.
Our experiences and characters were woven together. I knew her loneliness, her fears, hopes and shame; she shared my early jobs. I endured the snubs and insults of white people who believed themselves superior. When I walked on a crowded street or rode on the subway I was a black girl passing as white. She suffered and rejoiced as I had in love. I shed her childhood tears.”
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A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie
is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK
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Parallels with the Jewish experience
Like Caspary’s real-life Jewish family, Solaria’s family inhabits, both socially and geographically, the fluid borderline between Chicago’s Black and white communities, between the genteel, aspirational white lower-middle-class and the equally aspirational Black families who work in the twilight of the service economy, invisible to those they serve.
The Coxes live on a row of “three-story gray stone houses in Chicago, the longest standing family there apart from the family of Judge Nixon,” who owns them.
Her father Desborough is “a gentleman who did janitor work” being caretaker to Judge Nixon’s row of houses. Her brother Lincoln is a lawyer but “hadn’t enough law business to support his wife and baby, so at nights he ran an elevator in the building where he shared an office with two other coloured lawyers.”
Substituting Caspary’s own liberal, non-observant Jewish background for the environment of a pale-skinned, educated, aspirational Black family, Solaria’s is the identical situation, both in terms of location and race relations, to Caspary’s own Chicago youth, though Caspary’s father seems to have been a much stronger character than Solaria’s – the opposite to what one might expect from a semi-autobiographical first novel. In her actual autobiography Caspary says:
“The street where I was born, Rhodes Avenue, later became the center of Chicago’s Black Belt. The first Blacks who came there rented the other half of our double house. There was an outcry by neighbors; petitions were circulated, indignant letters sent to the property-owners.
Papa led a small faction against the protestors—he had grown up as an Abolitionist in Wisconsin. It was his contention that our neighborhood was honored by the presence of Judge Barnett and his wife, Ida B. Wells Barnett, a lawyer and leader of social causes. What right had the neighbors to consider themselves superior? A judge and a woman lawyer could look down on merchants, salesmen, shopkeepers.”
Solaria’s mother provides a warning to her as to the way she may end up. “Francia Cox was a shrill woman, bulky, aggressive. She was like Solaria, grown fat, grown wrinkled, grown into a machine for keeping a home clean and a family respectable.”
That is not the future Solaria wants for herself, she has far greater aspirations than marriage and motherhood, especially than marriage to a family friend, the brilliant young Black pianist called Eggers Benedict, a lover of Beethoven who aspires to be a composer and has interest from a music publisher. Eggers wants to marry Solaria and take her to New York with him, but she is not having it.
“’I’m going to be a great man, Solaria, a great composer.’ Solaria is not impressed. “You could have been a lawyer,” she says to him. “Even if you’re Beethoven I don’t want you.” Solaria is not going to marry a Black man, however cultured, however much he tells her “you’re the most beautiful woman alive.” Her outright racism comes as a profound shock.
At the start of the novel, Solaria is working for a Jewish dress manufacturer, a very select one – “Winkelberg’s was one of the fanciest wholesale dress houses in Chicago.” Solaria manages the stock room but has higher aspirations; she is “tired of the stock room. She had been there almost two years now and she was almost twenty. It was a shame for a girl to be a stock clerk at twenty – a girl who had gone through high school and could run a typewriter.”
Solaria aspires to be a secretary and gets an unexpected opportunity; one day she takes a letter while her boss’s secretary is at lunch and afterward stays seated at the secretary’s desk, “imagining herself in that exalted position.” But then another opportunity arises after one of the dress models is fired for insulting a Jewish customer. Blonde, arrogant, Aryan model Kathleen is virulently anti-Semitic.
“She could say anything about anybody. She had everything in the world but money, but a girl doesn’t need money to talk proud.” Solaria “felt sorry for all people who had to bear the proud talk of Kathleen and her sort.” After Kathleen has left, Solaria is offered a chance to model the dresses. In her internalized racial and social hierarchy Solaria is transported to an entirely different world.
Segue into the Black world
But nothing comes of either the modeling or the secretarial opportunities and her boss’s secretary becomes even more distrustful of Solaria. She wants to leave but her father is ill, and the family need her earnings. When her father dies after his second heart attack, the tragedy seems to bring out the Black in her mother.
Her father’s death has the opposite effect on Solaria. ‘The funeral, with its ecstatic moaning and singing was too noisy to comfort Solaria. She knew that white people sneered at the negro’s violent, showy grief.”
The father leaves a surprising amount of money, which Solaria and her mother need, for they have to move out to make room for the judge’s new janitor. Solaria “did not want to live among colored people,” but they cannot afford the rents in the white areas. “If Solaria went apartment hunting alone in her neat dark mourning clothes, she was treated with great respect by the most Nordic of renting agents, “but as soon as her mother appears apartments have mysteriously been ‘rented an hour earlier.”
They end up moving to “a home among negroes,” which was what her mother preferred all along. Their new street had previously been grand but “now it was shabby and dilapidated. Second-hand tire stores, dirty lunchrooms, pool parlours, fly-specked candy shops … Prairie Avenue was a down-at-the-heel prostitute who had once been genteel.”
A move to New York City; becoming a white girl
After Mr. Winkleberg tries to kiss her, Solaria leaves Chicago and her mother to move to New York, where she takes a job as a typist and lives as a boarder in the apartment of a white woman in a grand building that even has an elevator, something that Solaria revels in. The Solaria who arrives in New York is not the same Solaria who left Chicago. She is now definitely passing.
“Solaria Cox was a white girl now. There had been no difficulty making the change. No one questioned her right to ride in a Pullman, to register at a downtown hotel, to take a room in a white woman’s house, to hold a job as a typist in a big office where only white girls worked. No one asked questions about a girl’s race or the complexion of her parents. Solaria was taken for an American girl with a Scotch family name and a queer given name, perhaps of the same Latin origin as her dark hair and eyes.”
In New York Solaria is “as lonely during the day when she sat among the noisy typewriters as at night when she sat alone in her bedroom.” Her only companion is her mature landlady, who lives “in an old lady’s world. All she knew was the physical and the small. For her life consisted of petty dangers and comforts, of small preferences and prejudices.”
Over the next eighteen months, Solaria finds a place for herself in the Big Apple. She takes up modeling for clothes catalogues, which is far less boring than typing, but only pays intermittently.
And she is pursued relentlessly by her landlady’s son Oscar, who is married and lives in Cleveland but visits his mother occasionally. After many months of an on/off relationship, when they are finally alone, she lets Oscar kiss her but refuses to go any further.
“She was aching with regret at having yielded to his first kiss and she was filled with self-reproach for having encouraged him without intending to yield completely. Solaria was twenty-two now. And for many months she had been dancing with men to tantalizing music, she had been fighting with men over their kisses, she had been discussing and re-discussing the right and wrong of this ceaseless lovemaking.
Her body ached with eagerness. But she would not acknowledge her need for a man. To yield meant to give a valuable reward to a man for his love. Solaria would not bestow such favor on any man who was not her husband. It was not a matter of abstract morality but a question of pride. If a man did not love Solaria Cox enough to make her his wife, he did not deserve the sacrifice of her chastity.”
Solaria is alone and constantly in debt, wondering why she did not marry the rich Black man in Chicago who wanted her so badly. “For the life of her she could not see what she had gained by passing.”
Solaria meets and moves in with two other models, the beautiful and sympathetic Dell and the spiteful Rita. There are jealousies, rows over men and in one bitterly blazing argument, Rita tells Solaria that Oscar has told her about Solaria’s race. In tones reminiscent of Clare’s husband in Nella Larsen’s Passing, Rita spits, ‘You’ve got n– blood in your veins; that’s what’s biting you, Solaria Cox … I never intended to tell you, but now, well, now it’s too good a joke to keep back. And you deserve it, you dirty n–.”
Falling for David from Scarsdale
After reaching a new emotional and financial low when the female household breaks up so acrimoniously, Solaria meets and falls in love with a moderately wealthy white man called David whose family is from snobby, ultra-white Scarsdale in Westchester County. She is constantly worried about her secret being uncovered, of having it revealed by Rita or Dell.
‘The intensity of her fear magnified every danger and as she walked through the quiet, unfriendly neighborhood, she felt the eyes of the passers-by studying her face as if they knew she was a Negro passing as a white girl.” David asks her to marry him and she is reconciled with Dell, now married to a wealthy, older Jewish businessman and just back from a trip to Europe with him.
Dell’s husband soon catches her in flagrante with a lover, and she moves in with Solaria. She is now a heroin addict and drains Solaria of all her money, even pawning her clothes and jewelery without contributing anything to the household. Worse, she introduces David to the heroin habit.
Solaria’s fear of her secret coming out comes to the surface when David wants to take her to a concert of the music of Eggers Benedict, the Black composer and family friend who wanted to marry her years earlier. He is now celebrated as a Gershwin-style American composer on the New York music scene. Solaria clearly does not want to go, fearing she might be recognized.
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Physical copies of The White Girl are quite rare and very costly.
You can read it in full on Hathitrust
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Does David know?
One of Solaria’s fears is of having children, lest they born with dark skin. But she cannot say this. David raises the subject: “Not that we’d have to worry about kids,” he says. Does he mean what Solaria thinks he means? Does he know? “We just can’t have kids. It wouldn’t be fair, you know, to the kids. I mean it wouldn’t be right, Solaria, to have them without giving them the right start. You know why, Solaria.”
She cries all the way home. “In her mind lived one thought. David knew. David knew she was a Negro.” But why has he deceived her? Because “he wanted to rule and dominate every minute of her life, to own every inch of her body … He had liked her ignorance; it had pleased him to make her feel conscious of her inferiority … Married to David she would have been no better than his mistress.”
She realizes that “in the world of white men and women there was no place for Solaria Cox. She must go back, go back at once to her mother and Lincoln and Emily; go back to the old way of living.” Solaria resolves “to confess herself a Negro again. She would live in Harlem and work as a Negro. She would find the right work for a good colored girl.”
She will not be able to work as a model, will never be able to learn the same amount of money. “It would not be possible for her to make fifty and sixty and seventy-five dollars a week as a colored girl.” But she cannot do it: the world of Black people is no longer home, any more than the world of white people now is.
“If she became a colored girl again she would have to give up everything she had attained, her work, her reputation, her friendships, her manner of living among white people, her freedom in going where she chose. It was not a willing sacrifice. She wanted to be a white woman and share the sweetness of the white woman’s world. But she knew she had failed. Her masquerade had been in vain.”
It later turns out that David did not mean what she thought he meant when he talked about the not having children – he was simply worried that his father’s insanity might be passed on. But by now it is too late: David has seen her with her brother, who is obviously not white.
Nella Larsen’s novel ends with tragedy as a result of Clare’s passing. Caspary had originally written an ending with what she called “a note of wry honesty.” The heroine, who had deceived and lost her lover had, like all working girls, to keep on with her job. But Caspary’s publisher didn’t like it and “wanted the story to end sensationally. Publishers and editors, I thought, must certainly be wiser than a young writer. I changed the ending.”
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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.